I have never been a political man. In fact, I don’t give a shit whose in what office at what time so long as I can get beef short ribs and veal bones delivered in time to finish the three-day preparations that lead to each weekend. If someone were to get in the way of that happening perhaps I might take a stand for or against said person. Until that happens, fuck em! I think their all a bunch of bullshit artists and we would be well served to shake out the whole system and re-boot. Hmm…I guess that may have been a bit of a political statement in and of itself. Well, truth be told, I have no fear of displaying my contrast in opinion and warped sense of fair play, political or not. Hell, I’m the asshole that orders three double cheeseburgers with Mayo, a large order of fries and diet Coke. If that’s not contrast I don’t know what is. This little intro is an attempt to lull you into a state of open-mindedness before I open the can of hotbed debate I intend to discuss. The topics of which I speak are that of fevered and passionate opinion. I, for one have one of those opinions. In fact, I go as far as to have two opinions on the same dangerously polarizing debates. The subjects I am referring to are illegal labor and use of the English language
I hear a collective gasp as I utter the mere words. Good! This needs to come out. I will not continue to ignore the elephant in the room as we all turn our heads the other way. I have been in my business and operating at a very high level for twenty-five years. During that time, I’ve seen a virtual parade of co-workers, bosses, underlings etc pass by as I made my descent to my current perch in an industry in which I consider myself somewhat accomplished. As I look back over the years, I can see vividly many of the people I encountered. I can also see the extreme diversity of the fabric of which the restaurant industry is woven. Black, white, Latino, Asian you name it, we got it. This is not a racist industry to say the least. We do however, have an amazing ability to turn our heads, in an almost Linda Blair-like, 360 degree pivot. Especially when it comes to the subject at hand. “How dare you”? you ask, how can we not? Is my only response. As an industry we employ nearly 15 million people with an estimated 600 billion in gross revenue. Those are staggering numbers relating to an industry built on the backs of cast-offs, disregarded ex-whoever’s and soon-to-be actors, musicians, lawyers etc…How else would we be expected to fill the countless positions that need filling in order to feed everyone if not by turning our heads to certain less than helpful and all together useless hiring guidelines?
If we, as an industry, adhered to all of these guidelines set forth by our oh-so-concerned and well-meaning governmental officials… guess what? You would be enjoying a lovely meal on dirty plates in a filthy restaurant with disgusting bathrooms and kitchens served to you by… well, NOBODY! There is not a chance in hell that we would be able to pull of this minor miracle without the employment of an illegal workforce. I have made great efforts over the years to hire ANYONE willing to work provided they were able to perform the tasks at hand. I also made numerous attempts to hire only those that were actual citizens or legal residents of the United States. These attempts amounted to, much like my countless failed relationships, nothing more than frustration, disappointment and sorrow. My industry does not, by our own admission, have the highest entry-level pay scale. In our defense we also have one of the thinnest profit margins known to man. This is not an exaggeration nor is it a complaint. I make a very good living doing what I do and it is no more difficult or taxing on me then on any other hard-working person that strives for success. That being said, the challenges are many and the bulk of them rest in the staffing process.
You may or may not have noticed that there are precious few advertisements for schools actively recruiting students to learn the treasured art of dish washing. Or, for that matter, line cooking or table busing. There is no shortage however, of ads in the media that inspire one to become a CHEF. So what does this mean you ask. It means that we are a top-heavy industry filled with too many generals and not enough soldiers! Have you ever tried to lead a group of know- it-alls in one direction? It’s like a bunch of monkeys trying to gently hump a football. This is what it’s like trying to govern a group of people in a restaurant that all have years of experience in various operations that have as many differences as they do similarities. That is to say, there are as many bullshit culinary and hospitality management schools out there as there are assholes to run them and they are filled with as many liabilities to my staff as they are assets. If I had to rely on these balloon-headed goofballs to run my business I would put a gun in my mouth. This leaves me with precious few options in regards to staffing. What about seniors and part-time students you ask. Well, my grandmother is 85 my father is 66 and my cousin is 17. I love and respect them all but I promise you, they are not going to be the savior of this industry. This is not a part-time, kinda, sorta type of gig. If you work with me you do just that, you WORK! I don’t have the time nor the inclination to deal with bullshit requests for nights or weekends off for prom, cigar tastings or surgical procedures so that leaves Gram, Pops and Cuz out of the running for future employment.
This leaves me with a distinct and very willing segment of society from which to harness my work force. This segment is made up of every ethnicity and education level known. However, for the purposes of this blog and in an attempt to be a true reflection of my experiences thus far, I will be writing about a specific ethnicity. If I were in New York it would be people from Peru, Cuba and Brazil but we are not in New York we are in Chicago. Therefore, the people to whom I am referring are of Mexican descent. I will state for the record, that I have no racial bias of any kind. I don’t give a damn if you’re black, white, brown, purple or green. If you can do the work you can have the job. But if you say you can do the work and can’t… look out! I will flush you out, likely in the middle of dinner service, relieve you of your duties, remove your still beating heart and send you on your way home with a hole in your chest and a large bite mark on your ass. That’s just the way it is, I do not apologize for it nor do I have any remorse because this is how you are able to have a consistently excellent meal and experience in my restaurant on every single visit. Trust me, it’s better to not know all the details about how that sausage is made, simply thank me and push on….. You’re welcome.
Now then, let it be said that I do not hire busboys and dishwashers to remain as such. I hire on the basis that I expect these new additions to grow and mature and eventually become more keystone staff members such as cooks and waiters. I believe very strongly in promoting from within. It is much more effective to elevate the status and position of an already existing employee then to embark upon a needle in a haystack search for America’s next top waiter. By following such practices, I often times find myself face to face with a newly formed, albeit fledgling, ego. This is clearly a monster of my own creation so I have nobody to blame but myself. Sometimes I move too quickly and if the person in question has the IQ of the average man or woman but the emotional maturity of my 4-year-old niece…well you get the picture. Such was the case with my dear friend Hector.
Hector worked with my brother and I at Le Francais so I knew he had the chops to make it with me here in Winnetka. When one of the waiters heard through the Mexican Mafia that Hector was a free agent, I snatched him up. He hit the ground running three years ago and we were very pleased with his performance. Until…que the Dragnet music, I decided to move Hector into a back waiter position from his current position as busboy. In retrospect I see this was a mistake but you can’t get wet unless you jump in the water so, caution to the wind, I proceed as planned. It did not take long for Hector to become a complete jagoff toward both me and the rest of the staff. This happened incrementally but consistently over a period of months but it was easy to detect and needed constant adjusting. If not, this type of thing grows like a cancer and must be removed completely so as not to infect the rest of the team. Fast forward six months to a week ago Friday.
We are all humming along like a well-oiled machine preparing for a sold out evening that I was certain would yield great revenues and a dining room filled with the contentment of both staff and guests. This assumption was a slight misjudgment on my part as I was about to pull the string that would unravel the fucking sweater of my evening. It’s 6:30 and the house is full, kitchen is busy and stressed but pumping each course out nicely as they most often do. The dining room is limping a bit as the same amount of pressure applied evenly to kitchen staff and wait staff has a dramatically different result. To illustrate, most dining room staffs are a bunch of fucking whiney bitches and they often times cry out as if being stretched on the rack when they have only experienced a skinned knee. Buncha slack jaw sissies! Actually, the team I have in the dining room at Restaurant Michael is, I will say without a moment’s hesitation, the finest I have ever had as a group in one restaurant. These people make a great living, work hard and effectively and rarely miss a beat. They are well led by Dan my Maitre d’ and sprinkled throughout with just the right amount of youth, experience, energy and charm. Quite a combo and it makes us a formidable adversary for any restaurant in Chicago I’m proud to say. And then there was the Hector situation.
I am at the pass between the hot line and the waiters as I often am in the beginning of a busy evening. This allows Miguel, my Chef de cuisine, the ability to shore up any weakness in preparedness on each station before coming to relieve me of my expediting duties before I say or do something that will in short order, derail the service and send us off onto a rocky road. Miguel will quickly right the ship but not before blood is spilled do to the less then delicate insensitivity of the namesake of the restaurant, Me. I have been asking, no begging, for the dining room and kitchen to communicate with each other and more importantly with me in English for about the past six months. I know this will make everyone on the staff a little uncomfortable but I also know that if they work on it, they will become better employees and will be of better service to my guests.
Now mind you, I’m not asking for a dissertation or a fucking verbal thesis on the beauty and virtue of the English language. A few choice, key phrases and sentences will do, especially to start. I couldn’t even get that. It began to piss me off a few months ago and I discussed it with Dan and with a few other key staffers able to converse fluidly in both Spanish and English. A skill by the way, I do not myself, have. However, this is, and I say this knowing full well how much of a trigger statement it is, AMERICA! I have a prominently Latino Staff and the ones that make the most money and are most comfortable at work speak English. I did not make this rule. I am also not about to add to my list of responsibilities in running this business, the need to learn fluent Spanish. I learned long ago that I do not have the capacity to do so. Why the fuck would I put that on my plate as well? I have, over the years, become quite well versed in the art of “Spanglish” the adopted Spanish/English hybrid language of the kitchen. I am able to direct traffic on each station, recognize when I’m being called a fat fuck in multiple dialects and when someone is speaking poorly of my Mother in one of the various popular slang, God bless their hearts. I am also able to sling back the same good-natured (and vulgar) insults and banter but I am in no way able to converse with a persons Latino Grandma without sending her away offended and in tears. On this fine Friday it all came to a head.
Hector walks into the kitchen with another bus person behind him and they are speaking casually to each other in Spanish about a table and its needs in the dining room. I hear this and a vein pops out of my forehead as I spin around and in a disturbingly calm voice ask “I thought I asked you guys to speak English in this restaurant while we are in service” Hector responds abruptly to my statement with one of his own. I will paraphrase here since I cannot be sure of each word since, at that point, my ears began to bleed from the pressure of holding in the rage that was about to be unleashed. It was something to this effect as was later confirmed by Miguel. “This is my language and it is the one I will use!” Well I’ll be dipped in shit! The gloves are now clearly off so I dive in.
“FUCK YOU! YOU DICK! (again, I paraphrase) I ASKED THAT WE SPEAK ENGLISH IN THIS RESTAURANT DURING SERVICE AND THAT’S THE WAY IT’S GOING TO BE! IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT GET THE FUCK OUTTA HERE AND TAKE EVERYONE THAT AGREES WITH YOUR IGNORANT ASS WITH YOU. THIS IS NOT SOME FILTHY LITTLE BAR IN DURANGO ASSHOLE.
Granted, my delivery may be perceived as less than sensitive perhaps even, dare I say, a bit harsh. I love everyone on my staff a great deal and would (and have) done anything that I could to help them. Including, but not limited to, finding them an attorney, lending money, a place to live,(often times in my home), gifts for their children for special occasions, paid time off for family events and holidays… the list goes on. I do these things as much for myself as for them. It makes me happy to help and I feel good about myself when I have the chance to do so. If you ask for the shirt off my back I will happily give it to you along with any money in the pockets. If you attempt to take the shirt off my back I will stab you. That is the way it is. It’s a philosophy that may not be delicate and politically correct but it has served me well over the years and I will continue on as such.
Suffice it to say that Hector walked out in a huff in the middle of service that night taking another weak-minded bus person with him. I’m sure the whole time thinking “this will really fuck him, that fat prick” (in Spanish of course) In reality, he and the other idiot that walked out blindly with him were replaced in about twelve hours. This is after I was encouraged to call him and apologize for my insensitivity to his misunderstood plight. (Please insert hysterical laughter here….) I have this to say, when I have traveled to other countries, which I’ve done many times, I was expected to at the very least, attempt to communicate in that countries native tongue. I did so, poorly might I add, but I tried. I then came home and spoke the language with which I was raised. I am not, in any way, implying that I am smarter or more clever than anyone else, I just know that there are certain, non-negotiable truths in any society. The most basic of those truths is that if you refuse to even attempt to communicate in the language of the land then you will be judged and challenged on a regular basis by those that do. That’s it. There is no more to say on this point. It cannot be argued, it is fact. I am not saying it’s right or wrong, it simply is what it is.
To be honest, I will miss Hector. He was a decent kid and he had a pretty good way about him. I do however, feel a great sense of relief since his departure. The rest of the dining room has picked up the slack and have begun to train the new additions to the staff as I have requested, in English. I actually love the Spanish language, I find it romantic and filled with rhythm and an almost song like quality. I think I will begin to speak it on a regular basis when, that is, I move to fucking Mexico!